Competence, culture and capacity

Speakers at an online industry event agreed that competence is key to improving building fire safety, but there are cultural and capacity issues to wrestle with too. 

In a wide-ranging webinar hosted by Westminster Social Policy Forum, contributors discussed the next steps for improving building fire safety.

Councillor Kim Taylor-Smith, lead member for Grenfell, Housing and Social Investment at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea contributed to the first panel session.

He set the scene: “The Grenfell Tower fire had a shattering impact on our community. We are fundamentally resolved to making sure it doesn’t happen again, anywhere.”

Speaking about the work of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, he said that it laid bare the fundamental failings of buildings and it was incumbent on all to act on the learning that is emerging.

He talked about how competence will lead to improvements in building fire safety: “It creates capacity, raises standards, increases safety and builds trust. The consequences of not having competence can be absolutely catastrophic.” His concluding remarks were aimed at the building industry, he urged: “Don’t wait for the change. Take the initiative and place competent people and processes at the heart of your organisation.”

Peter Capelhorn, Chief Executive of the Construction Products Association spoke about the cultural issues that need to be addressed alongside the need to improve the competence of those involved in building fire safety.  

Reflecting on the build-up to the introduction of new building safety regime, he said that in the last 25 years, trends had taken the construction industry in the wrong direction, with lots of concerning issues about quality, assurance and competence. “I am appalled how this has played out in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry.”

He said that the construction and changes to buildings had been made in a diffuse way and that performance should be understood by looking at the whole of the building throughout its lifespan.

“We need to recapture the responsibility, knowledge and understanding of the buildings we design and construct: it’s about joining it up.” He added that the industry needs to regain trust and respect with a view to: “Building cultural change across the industry for the better.”

Ann Metherall heads up health and safety at law firm, Burges Salmon. She talked about capacity: having enough people with the right experience to do the job that is required. She said that competence requires a combination of training, knowledge and experience alongside clear guidance. Ms Metherall suggested that there are high levels of risk aversion by those who lack experience and yet are advising clients.

Tom Weld also from Burges Salmon said that the building industry needed to look at the competence of its personnel. “They need to do a decent job”, he asserted, “It’s not just about the products of construction, but about how they are fitted. We’ve got to get this right.”

He recognised that the move to the new building safety regime will have costs for companies and expand timescales for delivery. He argued that the regime should provide a case for optimism, with greater control and inspection on sites and he anticipated the return of the full time Clerk of Works role.

One of the functions of the new Building Safety Regulator is to promote competence across the built environment. It has established an Industry Competence Panel that will become statutory once the Building Safety Bill has gone through Parliament.

Westminster Social Policy Forum is one of 16 influential, impartial and cross-party forums.